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Movies | The Namesake offers up a different kind of culture clash

Issue: "Don't run, Newt," April 14, 2007

If you want to send most Christians running and screaming out of the theater, just tell them the movie is about multiculturalism. In the world of film, this word usually means a story about the clash of cultures-and often the villainous culture is some form of white, Anglo-Saxon civilization that will be damned as paternalistic, materialistic, and imperialistic.

Sometimes, though, the clash of cultures is a matter not for the public square but for the dinner table. That's the story of The Namesake (rated PG-13 for sexuality and brief nudity), a sprawling adaptation from Jhumpa Lahiri's bestselling novel that tells the story of the Ganguli family.

After an arranged marriage in Calcutta, Ashoke (Irrfan Khan) brings his wife, Ashima (Tabu), back with him to New York. Seventeen years later, they have a problem: a 17-year-old son (Kal Penn) who cares nothing for his family, for his Bengali heritage, or even for his name, which is, unfortunately, Gogol. At the breakfast table he suggests changing it: "Can you imagine 'Gogol Ganguli' on a resumé or a business card?" The father, tired and beleaguered, concedes defeat: "Anything is possible in America. Do as you wish." But will he?

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The Namesake is no comedy, but it's hard not to laugh-or at least smile-when Ashima flavors her Rice Krispies with curry. Or when Gogol's American girlfriend (Jacinda Barrett) shows up to a funeral in black, only to find everyone else in white. Or when he comes home high on marijuana, and his Bengali aunt chants a prayer to remove the curse. Funny moments like these keep the film from descending into bathetic sentimentalism, which is just too great a temptation in domestic drama.

So, what happens when the child rejects the ethos and customs of his parents? This question elevates The Namesake out of the tired bin of multicultural film and into something more like universal myth. Yes, it's a film about culture clash, but not the political kind. This kind is a little closer to home. The kind that may be sitting at your dinner table.

Harrison Scott Key
Harrison Scott Key

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